Birch and Barley – 1337 14th Street, Washington, DC 20005
From the moment you walk into Birch and Barley, which is located beneath a bar called “Churchkey,” you know what you’re getting into. The restaurant is small, busy, dark, and almost self-consciously hip. The decor is tasteful modern/industrial. The Sunday brunch clientele dresses casually, but that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to be excited about here. The wait times were surprisingly short when I visited- a mere twenty minutes. There is a wide variety of the more fashionable types of beer (pale ales seem to have proliferated exponentially) on the menu. Several varieties of bloody Mary are available, each priced between $8 and $11. The “Enter the Dragon” bloody Mary with sriracha and wasabi was piquant, and flavorful- creating an interesting balance between the dry, spicy flavor of the wasabi and the bright, acidic flavor of the tomato juice. The bloody Mary was, as one would expect, a tall hurricane glass full of flecked, caravaggistic liquid, and topped with a sizable skewer of garnishes. Punch and mimosas are also available for brunch, each costing $7. The smoked mussel and gruyere flatbread ($14) was chewy, salty, and cheesy in all the best ways. The onions in the soubise and the earthy, umami flavor of the mussels interacted in a balanced-yet-bold way. The gestalt of the cheese, onions, and mussels tended to imply a flavor that was at once smokey and briney, which truly allowed the mussels to reach their full potential. The stone ground white grits with Grafton cheddar ($4.50) were, without a doubt, the best grits I have ever eaten. At the conclusion of the meal I tried a bite of my dining companion’s peach brandy French toast ($14) with roasted peaches, candied almonds, and whipped mascarpone. It was unquestionably delicious, and would satisfy any sweet tooth. Whipping the mascarpone was an excellent choice to keep the whole affair from becoming entirely too heavy, even as a decadent treat. The staff errs on the side of cold efficiency rather than cloying small-talk, but even though I had a sense that our waitress wanted to turn the table around quickly, she was very skilled and professional.